Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review - War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds  by H.G. Wells (1897) - Earth astronomers are surprised by a series of violent explosions on the surface of Mars.  All too soon they will discover the cause of the disturbance as spaceships slam into the quiet English country side near London.  The Martians have landed and their intent is to destroy humanity and take our world.  One man finds himself trapped in the area where the ships have landed.  The story of everything that happened during those terrible days and the surprising ending are detailed here.

This is another classic story that everyone thinks they know by heart and are utterly wrong.  There are several concepts that have carried through the legendary radio broadcasts and the movies.  Mars, Martians, invasion, tripods, death and destruction.  The problem is that we've become so comfortable with the radio/TV coverage version of the story that we've lost Wells original.

The story in the novel is told completely as a first person account of a man who gets caught in the middle of the invasion.  He sees his fellow citizens first approaching the crash sites with curiousity, only to be killed without provocation by the invaders.  He will see entire villages wiped out by a creeping black smoke and thousands of others fleeing without plan or compassion for others.  The story as we have come to know it isn't really all that interesting.  It's fairly stock science fiction fare as the evil aliens invade the world.  Wells story brings a level of true horror to the story because it all begins in such a mundane fashion and our protagonist begins with such every day concerns.  At the time he wrote the story he has the aliens land in the heart of the greatest power in the world.  Against the aliens that power has no answer to the invasion.  The Martians sweep the military aside with as little effort as they expend against the regular populace.  It is clear that if they gain a foothold on this world, humanity will not be able to stand before the onslaught.

This is no lightweight, breezy bit of science fiction fluff.  Wells creates a powerful indictment of human arrogance that is only strengthened by the ending.

The writing stands up fabulously well for the modern reader and the message is truly compelling.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review - The Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera (1925) - The classic silent movie version, starring Lon Chaney as the disfigured genius behind the mirror at the Paris Opera who becomes obsessed with a young singer.

It's easy to assume that movie making back in the early days of the art was much simpler, with a less compex visual approach to story telling.  Sitting and watching a great movie of that age will show you just how foolish that opinion is.  Chaney offers a masters class all by himself, from his trademark makeup to the carefully crafted performance of a man driven beyond the realm of sanity.  Watching him descend the grand staircase in the masque bal scene disguised as the Masque of the Red Death (one of the earliest full color segments for the mass audience) is stunning.  The final scene where the Phantom holds the mob at bay through the sheer power of his personality will hold the movie goer in the exact same way.

The acting is a little uneven.  Even taking into account the vast difference in acting style between then and now, there are moments that don't seem to jibe very well.  This is probably due to the fact that several directors worked on the movie over the span of two years and pieces of all of their work was editted together.  In the end we are still left with movie that tells its story well with an interesting visual approach.  Wrap all of that around the iconic vision of the Phantom brought together by Chaney and you have a true classic.

The opportunity to see a silent movie in a theater of that generation with one of the classic movie theater Wurlitzer organs was not to be resisted.  Seeing one of these movies in this kind of venue was on my movie lover Bucket List.  The Byrd Theater in Richmond opened in 1928 to much acclaim.  It has maintained a special place in the heart of Richmond ever since.  It is also the home of one of the "Mighty Wurlitzer" organs.  Rising from its lair in the orchestra pit, the console controls pipes, harp, grand piano and a variety of  sound effects.  I had to remind myself several times that the soundtrack was the work of a single musician on a single instrument.  The experience was everything I had hoped for and then some.  The Byrd is in the process of revitalizing the building and all its parts including the organ.  I am glad to support that effort.

Rating - (See it at home) ****  Recommended
              (In a classic theater with organ) ***** Highest Recommendation

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Best of the Web - Welcome to Night Vale

(Best of the Web is an occasional series of posts where I highlight websites that I think bring out the best of what the web can be.  The choices and the standards upon which they are made are entirely my own)

Welcome to Night Vale (podcasts)  is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.

It was inevitable that I was going to love this podcast series.  Focusing on the voice of the community radio station, Cecil Gershwin Palmer, as he takes us through the day to day events in this quiet desert town.  This has the feel of an old time radio serial as well plus elements of mystery, science fiction and absurdist theater.  Having grown up on "The Twilight Zone" and been a fan as an adult of "Twin Peaks", "The X-Files" and "Lost" the chances that I wouldn't at least try WTNV were vanishingly small.

Once you are introduced to the dog park where dogs (and people and even looking into the dog park) is banned, where the Sheriff's Secret Police send in public service announcements for Cecil to read, where street cleaning day gives rise to terror and Valentine's Day is an annual trial for the community to survive I don't think it's possible to resist regular trips to Night Vale (and you shouldn't resist, you mustn't resist).  Before you've listened to a dozen episodes you will be able to anticipate Cecil and say certain phrases right along with him ("John Peters, you know, the farmer" and "Old lady Josie who lives out near the carlot").  Everything is just a half a bubble off and you will never listen to local media the same way again.

What really makes this stand out from so much of the rest is the quality of the writing and the virtuoso performance of  Cecil Baldwin as Cecil Gershwin Palmer.  The writing is done by the series creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (with contributions by a wide range of other writers during the course of the series).  The consistently high quality of that writing is rather astounding all by itself.  When delivered in the low key delivery of Baldwin it is riveting.  When Cecil (the character) suddenly grows animated about something (usually Carlos.  No spoilers here, you'll have to discover the wonder of Carlos for yourself) it provides the perfect counterpoint to usual unflappability of the voice of Night Vale.

Today WTNV is the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, it has it's own touring show and a novel in the works.  Just because something is popular doesn't mean it can't also be the best of what is on the web.  WTNV manages both.

Come to the land where time runs at its own pace and every conspiracy theory is a banal part of daily life.  Explore how creative, hysterically funny and skin crawlingly creepy a podcast can be.

Welcome to Night Vale.

It's what the Internet can be, at its best.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie Review - Empire of th Air

Empire of the Air - The Men Who Made Radio (1991) - Ken Burns delves into the stories of the three men most central to the development of radio and eventually television - Lee de Forest, E.H. Armstrong and David Sarnoff.  The growth of Radio into the first electronic, broadcast medium and its dominance of the American media scene for fifty years requires the peculiar gifts and failings of each man.  de Forest was a genius at self promotion and adapting others work into something innovative.  He created the audion tube, which made broadcast radio possible.  Armstrong was the true inventive genius of the bunch.  Easily the least known of the trio, Armstrong had a greater impact on the technical end of radio than any other person.  Among his inventions was FM radio.  Finally there is the Russian immigrant David Sarnoff.  Sarnoff's genius was the organizational and business vision the other two lacked.  The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and television are among his gifts to the world.  Their paths would cross and re-cross over the years, leading to a battle royal among their egos.

If there is one thing that these three men share beyond their individual geniuses, it is the enormous egos of each of them.  Because they would never compromise, because each of them held tenaciously to their belief in their unique place in history they would battle one another with quarter neither asked nor given.  In pure business terms it would be Sarnoff who would win.  Court battles that lasted for decades eventually drove Armstrong to suicide.  Lee de Forest became a figure of equal respect and disdain in history.  Even Sarnoff's fame has faded more than he had hoped in the four decades or so since his death.

Burns does his usual wonderful job of bringing the story of the people involved to life.  Jason Robards narrates with the kind of gravitas we have also come to associate with a Ken Burns film. Close to a hundred years of history are covered in a concise two hours.

The audience for this documentary is probably a little limited.  For a "radio guy" like me this was a wonderful reminder of the glory days of the medium that still holds a special place in my heart. If you grew up with radio as domininant or at least influential medium, this would be very interesting.  For anyone who wants to understand where our current media world began this should be must viewing.

Rating - ***  Worth A Look

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review - What Follows

What Follows - Edited by April Steenburgh and C. Lennox (2014) - How would an Immortal deal with the End Times? The world will inevitably come stumbling into apocalypse, and They will be there to witness it. Dryads, demi-gods, deities of every pantheon- is it possible for the Eternal to handle an ending with grace? Should it come through disease, disaster, or religious fervor, discover What Follows…

Stories by Lyn Thorne-Alder, M.J. King, Joyce Chng, Kate Larking, Nina Waters, K Orion Fray, E.V. O'Day, Crystal Sarakas, Sarah Lyn Eaton, and Ross Bennett.

In the spirit of transparency, let me note that I know three of the authors included here personally.  In the long run, that really doesn't ease their path at all, LOL.

It is hard to give each author here their own little review without spoiling the reading experience.  Each author has chosen their own Immortal race to explore the concept of the end times and each delivers a fascinating exploration of that world.  The stories here range from Egyptian gods to the Selkies of Scots/Irish folklore to various forms of faerie to Muses and demons (among others).  You might think that the End Of All Things would be easier for an Immortal.  These authors will show you otherwise.

What I like most about this collection is the way it takes advantage of the broad discretion they are given in the concept.  There are no two stories alike here, no tired retread of concepts used so many times before.  I won't guarantee that you will like all the stories.  But you will be challenged and/or charmed and/or intrigued by every one.  Most of the immortal beings here were familiar to me but I got a surprise in the final chapter (Selkies were new to me).

If I have a reservation about the book it is the lack of a foreword or introduction outlining the concept of the collection.  I'm told that is being rectified even as I speak the words.  Something to help set the reader up for what follows will really take this a collection to the next level.

If you enjoy apocalyptic literature, if you enjoy stories about supernatural beings or if you are simply in the mood to explore some new concepts and new writers this is a collection you should be adding to your shelves (virtual or otherwise).  

As of the time of the writing of this review, this book is only available in e-book format.  I'm told a print version is in the works.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, November 3, 2014

Movie Review - HappyThankYouMorePlease

HappyThankYouMorePlease (2010) - A group of 20-something friends struggle with the realities of actually having to grow up.  Each of them has to find their way out of their old understanding of love into something new.

Ten minutes into this movie I was pretty sure I wasn't going to like it.  Thirty minutes in I was thinking that it had a couple endearing qualities but I didn't feel like it was going to pull it off.  An hour in and the endearing qualities had pulled into the lead and stayed there.  It never fully overcame its shortcomings but it minimized them enough to let all the good parts shine through.

This is Josh Radnor's "coming out" movie.  After a leading role in the television hit "How I Met Your Mother", he wrote, directed and starred in this one.  The problem that I had early on (and honestly most of the movie) is that his character, Sam Wexler, is exactly like the lead character in Sam's novel.  He's not really much of anything.  An outstanding short story writer, his novel just comes up short.  Radnor uses the concept beautifully later in the movie and I assume that the parallel between the two is intentional.  The problem is that we're left with a leading man who is neither much of a lead nor much of a man.  When he first runs into and ends up stuck with a small African-American boy it really feels like a low rent version of "About A Boy".  It also feels like a cheap, sentimental effort to redeem Sam's character.

As the movie goes on you realize that Radnor has done two rather amazing things.  He's made the female characters the most interesting people in the movie and he's made his own character the most deeply flawed.  There are several parallel stories going on.  Annie (Malin Akerman) is trying to deal with her diagnosis of alopecia by keeping the world at arm's length and making bad choices about men.  She eventually is pushed into seeing the guy right in front of her who is crazy about her.  Sam's "cousin" (not really but one of those two families who are such close friends that they become family) Mary Katherine (Zoe Kazan is wonderful in this small role) is struggling with the reality that her longtime boyfriend wants to move to L.A., away from "home" in New York City.  They gently slog their way through some very real life conflict on their way to their new realization.  Sam meets Mississippi (that's the character's rather ludicrous name, and yes, that's where she's from.  Played by Kate Mara, whose singular good looks will hold your attention every moment she's on the screen.  The character itself doesn't have a whole lot of "there" there but she does a nice job with what she's given), an aspiring singer who is not sure she really wants to be with him but let's him convince her.  Meanwhile Sam is dealing with the kid in his life, Rasheen (Michael Algieri) who presents him with the recurring opportunity to make the wrong decision.  Of all the story lines this one is the weakest.  It's cliché, it's predictable and the payoff is both unremarkable and unlikely.

The real standouts here are Kazan and Tony Hale, who plays "Sam #2".  This is the guy that is bound and determined to woo Annie.  Going from annoying nerd at the start of the movie he lands someplace so unexpected and wonderful that I won't spoil it for you.  The movie ends with a slightly saccarine moral but one that you're ready to love when it arrives.

Call it movie where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Rating - ***   Worth A Look

Monday, October 27, 2014

Movie Review - The Great Escape

The Great Escape (1963) - A group of Allied soldiers with long records of trying to escape from German POW camps are transferred to a camp specifically designed to contain them.  They begin to plan the largest prisoner escape of the war.  Based on a true story.

Welcome to another "spot the stars" movie.  The cast is impressive.  Steve McQueen, Jame Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, and David McCallum.  They bring a fairly accurate version of the story of a massive escape from a German prison camp Stalag Luft III.  The original plan involved three tunnels and the escape of over 200 soldiers.  In the end only a single tunnel would be "completed" (it had issues but I won't drop a spoiler on you) and only 76 men managed to escape.  Kudos to screenwriter James Clavell and director John Sturges for not giving into a "Hollywood" ending.  It takes a solid war movie and makes it into something really striking.

This is the classic Hollywood war movie.  The prison camp is clean and orderly.  The cast is made up of manly, strong male characters who never let anything get them down.  They're resourceful and cheerful and there's no chance they are going to be defeated.  It's fun watching them come up solutions for a variety of major engineering problems (like making sure there is fresh air the whole way along an almost 112 yard long tunnel that is 9 yards underground.  What is even more amazing is realizing what you see in the movie is exactly what the prisoners pulled off, right under the guards noses!

What's nice are the places where they take even small steps away from the standard war movie script.  Bronson's character develops a serious case of claustrophobia, which is a problem as a primary digger.  Staying with the factual ending.

The major disappoints are Coburn's AWFUL Australian accent, and the rather unimpressive McQueen role.  There were in fact no Americans at Stalag Luft III but the studio felt they needed one for the audience.  McQueen then insisted his role be expanded.  Unfortunately, what we end up with isn't really worth the screen time.  There's a recurring story line/joke that isn't too bad but the rest you could easily eliminate and you wouldn't miss it.

On the whole it is a worthy addition to the war movie genre and shows enough beyond the usual fare to be worthy of putting it on your list.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, October 20, 2014

Movie Review - Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole - (1951) - Chuck Tatem (Kirk Douglas) is a big time newspaper reporter who has managed to get fired in every big city in the country.  He ends up working for a small paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  On his way to cover a rattlesnake round up he stumbles on just the kind of story he dreams of, a man trapped deep in a cave.  Using every cynical trick he's ever learned Tatum will try to turn the story into his ticket back to the big time.  In short order the story spins way beyond his control.

Love film noir?  You'll love "Ace in the Hole".  The tough, cynical anti-hero.  The equally tough blond who uses men for her own purposes, even if it often doesn't work out the way she had hoped.  The movie contains what may be my favorite noir line of all time when Lorraine Minosa (Jan Stirling), the wife of the man in the cave, looks at Tatum and says:
I've met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my life, but you, you're twenty minutes
Douglas brings a brittle, cynical edge to Tatum that carries the movie forward.  As far as he's concerned there is nothing really worth considering outside of New York City.  His vision of "journalism" is far more show business that classic news business.  And the star of the show must always be Chuck Tatem.  In a day and age when journalistic standards are under heavy assault, if they haven't been made nearly extinct already, this movie feels very up to date.  Tatum pulls out all the stops, tries to control all access to the story, the spin of the story and finds every possible way to cash in.  Even to the detriment of everyone around.  Like any catastrophe Tatum damages everything and everyone near him.

There was a lot of great things going on behind the scenes in this one as well.  Billy Wilder produced, co-wrote and directed this movie.  For the real movie geek, the costumes in this movie were done by legendary, eight time Oscar winning designer Edith Head.  The result is a movie that The Hollywood Reporter called "ruthless and cynical".  At the time, the critics (who were all newspaper reporters) didn't have much good to say about the movie.  Audiences didn't like it much either.  Paramount Studios tried to revive ticket sales by changing the name to "The Big Carnival" without consulting Wilder.

As the years have gone by Wilder's vision seems more and more prescient.

You won't be rooting for the movie's "hero" but you won't be able to take your eyes of him either.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation

Monday, October 13, 2014

Movie Review - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) - As young socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) journeys back to England to be married to a man she doesn't really love, she makes friends with a kindly older woman, Mrs. Froy (Dame May Whitty), on the train.  Shortly the older woman disappears and all the other passengers deny they ever saw her.  With the help of self assured musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) she hunts for the truth on the train in this comic drama directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock had developed an outstanding reputation for his work in England and Hollywood was considering bringing him to the U.S.  The problem was that his previous four movies hadn't been particularly successful.  When legendary American producer David. O. Selznick saw "The Lady Vanishes" he knew that Hitchcock was up to the challenge.  This was his next to last movie in England before making the move.  Curiously, his final English movie ("Jamaica Inn") was a box office success but Hitchcock never liked it.  He did not make his trademark cameo appearance in it.  At least one movie critic considers it one of the 50 worst movies of all time.

This is a classic train mystery.  Someone disappears on a moving train when it shouldn't be possible to just disappear.  Hitchcock's trademark sense of whimsy in on display here from the opening scene in an overwhelmed small European hotel.  This is the movie that introduces two classic English characters in Charters and Caldicott (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford).  The two cricket obsessed gentlemen aren't well known in the States but became quite popular in England.  They would go on to appear in a variety of movies and radio shows, eventually even getting their own TV series.

The movie was a career launching pad for several actors beyond Wayne and Radford.  Margaret Lockwood was relatively unknown prior to taking the role and Michael Redgrave was an up and coming stage actor who had never been on the screen before.  This movie would launch him into stardom.  Dame May Whitty was already an established performer with an Oscar nomination (Supporting Actress, 1937 for "Night Must Fall") to her credit.

"The Lady Vanishes" lacks the claustrophobic intensity of many of Hitchcock's classic American films but it keeps the action moving very nicely.  Everything works well together to create a truly enjoyable movie experience.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review - Spy Handler

Spy Handler - Memoirs of a KGB Officer - Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer (2005) - In the last 30 years two spies for the U.S.S.R./Russia did more damage to American security than any others - Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  Victor Cherkashin was the man who "ran" both of them for the Soviets from their recrutiment to the time of his retirement. Ames was a C.I.A. employee, Hanssen was an F.B.I. agent. When it comes to the number of American agents betrayed Hanssen is number one and Ames is number two.  Cherkashin takes the reader to the other side of the story to see the Soviets reaction to the information and how the two spies were eventually exposed.

Espionage is a difficult subject in democratic societies.  It feels dishonest some how, harking back to the days of Secretary of State Henry Stimson who famously said "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail".  The Soviet Union had no such compunctions.  They also take a simple approach to those who betrayed them.  A quick trial followed by an equally quick bullet to the back of the head.  The actions of the two American spies resulted in at least dozens, if not a hundred deaths.  Fortunately for them they were convicted in the United States where they only received life imprisonment without possibility of parole as their sentences.

At the same time we need to realize that when we (the U.S.A.) convince people in other countries to do the exact same thing as Hanssen and Ames we consider them "good guys".  That doesn't excuse either of them but we need to face the uncomfortable reality of the intelligence world.

Cherkashin presents that world without any pretense that it is the world of James Bond.  Intelligence work is painstakingly slow with mountains of paperwork.  The spies who betray their countries are rarely ideological purists.  Both the Soviets who spied for us and the Americans who spied for them were usually people with some kind of ax to grind.  They wanted money, they wanted revenge, they felt that they weren't being properly appreciated in their own countries.  The motivations are simple, sad and unpleasant.

Because of that this doesn't really qualify as an "exciting" read.  No car chases, no beautiful female spies.  It's a straight forward look at the most important espionage cases in recent U.S. history from the side who had the most to gain.  If you are as fascinated by the real world of espionage as I am, you'll find the book well worth your time.

Rating - *** Worth A Look